Article written by Tim Bonner from the Countryside Alliance

“Only 2% of the population have regular contact with horses, one fifth think that using horses for sport is unacceptable and another two fifths accept the use of horses in sport but only if welfare and safety are improved.

These are the headline figures from World Horse Welfare’s (WHF) research into ‘Social license and the involvement of horses in sport’ which Chief Executive Roly Owers presented to an audience from the equine industry at Knightsbridge Barracks yesterday (15th June 2023). These are challenging numbers and as one contributor later noted, we all assume that the trend is for public concern about the use and welfare of horses to be growing, not diminishing, over time. 


In a subsequent panel discussion British Horse Racing Authority Chief Executive, Julie Harrington, argued strongly that licensing and regulation were a good thing which gave confidence to the public and politicians and minimised poor practice which impacts on everyone in the industry. She also revealed the positive impact marginal gains in practice are having on racecourse injury statistics. Vet Merry Smith argued that all professional yards across all disciplines should be licensed by their governing bodies to preserve high standards and give confidence to the public. European Equestrian Federation President, Theo Ploegmakers, confirmed that the public in other European countries have similar concerns about horse welfare and made the point that changing practice when traditions are at stake can be very difficult. He also talked about legislation in Sweden which makes it a legal requirement to turn stabled horses out every day. Television racing presenter, Rishi Persad talked about the need to educate the public about high welfare standards, but acknowledged the challenge when people have so little time.

The overarching message from the equine sport sector is that public attitudes are changing and only by continually improving welfare and standards through regulation and culture change will horse sports be able to retain that critical social license and protect their future. This is a lesson for everyone involved with animals for whatever purpose whether it be sport, food or wildlife management. If we do not monitor public attitudes, as WHW are doing, have honest conversations and be ready to change practice to reflect changes in public opinion, then other activities involving animals will become increasingly vulnerable to political restriction or prohibition.


We know that trail hunting and game shooting are on Labour’s agenda and we cannot deny the political and public relations challenges that both activities face. As Theo Ploegmakers, highlighted, change is especially difficult when traditions are at stake, but when the alternative to reform is the complete loss of those traditions surely change is the less painful option.”